Rodgers learns 52 ways to motivate teammates
By Lori Nickel, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – Donald Driver was getting dressed for the game at St. Louis two years ago when Aaron Rodgers came over and handed him the game program.
“Read this,” Rodgers said.
The article referred to Green Bay’s veteran receiver being past his prime and too old to make any impact.
Driver, who has made a 13-year NFL career out of proving his detractors wrong, felt his blood boil. And then he caught four passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.
“That’s something that I love about Aaron – he knows how much I love criticism,” Driver said. “People tell me I can’t do it; I prove them wrong. Soon after that at Detroit, I ended up winning the Gobbler. Pam Oliver said after the game something like, ‘The old man does it again.’
“That was very, very motivating for Aaron to walk up to me and show me that. It was motivation to go out there and play at a high level. And he continues to push me now.”
The Packers’ elite quarterback is familiar with the power of motivation.
From the kids on the high school bus who said he’d never make it to the colleges and their rejection letters to the teams that passed on draft day to the boo-birds on Family Night. People said he couldn’t run, was made of glass, couldn’t rally in the fourth quarter and couldn’t live up to the legacy of you-know-who.
He’s used every one.
And now he finds ways to motivate his teammates.
With a look, or a word or a simple show of support, Rodgers prods his teammates to give more. There is no one formula for reaching 52 other guys. And that’s the secret. Rodgers studies his teammates to come up with the best method to push them.
“That’s why he has so much success,” backup quarterback Graham Harrell said. “It’s not just how well he plays but how he can get other guys to play around him.”
Rodgers is playful with the defensive linemen in practice, but if you play with him on offense, you do not want The Look.
It’s practice, and tight end Tom Crabtree makes a rare mistake. He looks up. Rodgers has zeroed in.
“It’s a pretty good look. It’s pretty constructive,” Crabtree said. “But it’s good to make those (mistakes) in practice, because then you definitely don’t make it in a game.”
A drop in practice. A mental error. A half-effort. Those will get the icy cobalt blue stare just long enough to make the receiver feel a little guilty, but most important – aware.
“We can’t run a route at 75% in practice because we’re not feeling it,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Then the timing is all off and then he looks bad and he gets mad at us – and that will keep me moving forward.
“You don’t want to get on the bad side.”
The Look is much better than more demonstrative signs of disapproval. Rodgers keeps it low-key with The Look while still conveying his message: You can do better.
“Sometimes you can see it on his face, you know: ‘Hey, come on, guys,’ ” right guard Josh Sitton said. “He’s not the type of guy that’s going to yell at you or put you down. He’s a real positive guy. Everybody respects him.
“But when things are happening wrong, he kind of gives you that look, and when he gives you that look, you know.”
But The Look is nothing compared to being called out by Rodgers.
Rodgers motivates tight end Jermichael Finley by asking him to do everything the right way instead of just relying on his elite talent.
“He did jump me a couple of times, but nothing too brutal. Nothing I can’t handle,” Finley said. “Like if you didn’t get your depth on running a route, he’ll jump you for that.
“He’s the quarterback, and if you want to get the ball, you’ve got to do it right.”
But then as quickly as Rodgers pushes Finley, he praises him with something he noticed.
“He does a good job adapting to each guy, like someone like Jermichael, who is a little more wired than most guys, or Jordy and Greg Jennings, who are more laid-back,” Harrell said. “He knows how to get to each one of them personally.”
But Rodgers’ attempts at motivation don’t always work. Last year, when rookie running back James Starks came off the physically unable to perform list, Rodgers nudged him to work harder in practice.
Well, it was more like a scolding.
And Rodgers now believes he was wrong.
“He is probably the nicest guy in the locker room. And I felt bad because I kind of ripped him a couple of times,” Rodgers said. “So I had to go to him and apologize. It took me a little to figure out he was out for nine weeks and kind of how he’s best motivated.
“He just needs that constant encouragement. Reminders – but in a way that’s uplifting.”
The history behind it
Rodgers realized 10 years ago at Butte College that it helped to understand his teammates in order to ask them to play their best.
“I was 18, just out of high school,” Rodgers said. “Our center was 25 from Canada, our left tackle had been in the Army, one of my best friends on the team had been in prison – he was our free safety. I really learned the difference between leading a bunch of high schoolers – you’re all about the same age – and leading guys who come from all different backgrounds.”
Rodgers takes the time to educate himself on his teammates by being observant and making the effort to get to know them.
Tim Masthay had been in Green Bay less than 48 hours. He was thrown immediately in to a two-man fight for the punting job. He was a number. Totally anonymous.
And yet someone kept messing with him.
Masthay was working out with the special-teams unit. The quarterbacks were in the middle of a March practice. Masthay did a triple-take to realize it was Rodgers, whom he had never met, joking around with him. Still feeling like a guest, Masthay was floored.
“He called me by my first name,” Masthay said. “Me – a rookie free agent, new off the street, a punter, frankly bottom of the totem pole. Yet he immediately made me feel welcome and a part of the team.”
Rodgers does his research: Where is the player from, his college and what other parts of his background are relatable or interesting.
“I wanted to talk to Diyral Briggs right away and get his story, to Erik Walden and Howard Green and get his story, because that can only make us better,” Rodgers said. “The chemistry of the team is often under-appreciated or overlooked when you talk about success. When you know the guy next to you – when you can count on him, you’ve hung out with him, you know what kind of person he is, know how he’s motivated – then you can figure out the buttons to push.”
A year and a half later, Masthay wants to perform his best, naturally, but part of that is because he doesn’t want to let anyone down, most of all Rodgers.
“We were playing Detroit at home. The week before I hit the ball pretty decent, but Devin Hester had returned one,” Masthay said. “There was all this pressure on the punting and on me. I started out the Detroit game with a bad punt; I just kind of shanked one out of bounds. The crowd is booing here at home.
“I come to the sideline and a couple of teammates talk to me, but he pulled me off to the side – and he’s getting ready to start an offensive series – and just settled me down. ‘Just do your stuff.’ ”
A calming presence
For all the competitive nature of Rodgers, his calming effect on the team can be seen most often in his receivers.
“You know what he does that other quarterbacks don’t? It’s in the huddle: ‘Let’s just take one throw at a time,’ ” Driver said. “That motivates everyone in the huddle – even if you are nervous, like, ‘Man, I’ve got to make every play count. This may be my one opportunity.’ He makes you forget that.
“He motivates the guys to say, ‘Let’s not worry about how many balls we’ve got. Let’s just play.’ Because when it’s all said and done, no one is going to care about you having a 1,000-yard season – everyone is going to care about us winning the whole thing.”
That’s an entirely different kind of motivation, unique to a 2011 Packers squad that is so deep at receiver and tight end. Rodgers has to find a way to keep everyone content when things can’t always be fair.
The Packers won the season opener against New Orleans, but not everyone was happy. James Jones had one reception. This was not what he had hoped. Though Jones knew the Packers had depth at receiver, he had waited for his time. He had signed a new contract. His moment was now.
Rodgers didn’t want to let that issue fester, so he talked with Jones right away.
“I wanted him to know – one, I have confidence in him,” Rodgers said. “Two, I agree with him. He should get more opportunities. And three, when he’s in there, to run every route as if he’s going to get the ball.
“I don’t think that’s going to directly correlate to him playing well the next couple of weeks or anything. But I just hope he understood that I had confidence in him and I was agreeing with him.”
Jennings, Nelson, Finley and even Starks have had more catches than Jones, who had a surreal performance at Detroit on Thursday with three catches including a 65-yard touchdown. He’s shown he could be a starter. It’s got to be a challenge for the 27-year-old in his prime, but he hasn’t vented since.
One mission, one heartbeat, one team. Case closed.
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